Central & South Asia
Afghan avalanches trap hundreds
Cold and suffocation kills many after being trapped in mountain highway tunnel.
Last Modified: 10 Feb 2010 11:46 GMT
Snow storms hammered the Salang tunnel triggering avalanches that blocked people inside [AFP]

At least 40 people have died and hundreds more were trapped through the night in  freezing cold after avalanches closed a mountain highway tunnel in Afghanistan.

Passengers stuck in the Salang pass - the main route across the Hindu Kush mountains - said via telephone that they were freezing to death and being suffocated by car fumes.

At least 70 people have been injured, according to a defence ministry official.

A force of 600 soldiers plus police units and other emergency workers had managed to evacuate 1,500 trapped people, including at least 70 who were injured, the defence ministry said in a statement that gave a death toll of 28 people.

Days of heavy snow triggered avalanches which blocked the 2.6km long Soviet-built tunnel - a historic engineering feat that links Kabul and Afghanistan's north - connecting the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia.

"I saw five dead bodies from a car parked behind us, and so far the government has not done enough to save our lives," Qazi Azhar, an Afghan judge, who was caught in the treacherous mountain pass at 3,400 metres, said.

Multiple avalanches

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said he was saddened by the deaths and ordered government workers to do all possible to open the pass.

Abdul Mateen Edraak, the head of Afghanistan's National Disaster and Preparedness Centre, said there had been 17 avalanches reported so far and more than 200 trucks, buses and cars were trapped inside the tunnel, which made the rescue operation more difficult.

Concern was greatest for passengers stuck in cars exposed to the extreme cold, Edraak said.

"Some 50 cars which are exposed to extreme weather are a concern for us but others inside tunnel are not bad," he said.

"The people are stuck there for more than 24 hours and if there are no other avalanches we will hopefully bring them out by end of the day."

Heavy snowfall and rain also caused floods in the south of the country. Zalmay Ayoubi, the spokesman for the governor of southern Kandahar province, said six people had been killed and 10 were missing as a result of floods.

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